A.J. Hinch zipped in and out of his 2019 World Series press conferences with impressive speed. He was never late, quickly walked into the room, sat, handled questions with clarity, calm and charm. Then he dashed out the side door.
Hinch didn’t short-change his answers despite rocket-fueled entrances and departures. He appeared the lone part of Houston’s managerial hierarchy to understand what was actually happening when Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein reported the buffoonery coming from the Astros clubhouse after Houston won the American League pennant last season. And now, after a 25-minute on-camera mea culpa in front of a well-coiffed Tom Verducci, Hinch has graduated to least wrong in this sign-stealing fiasco.
He is wrong. Don’t mistake that. Hinch said as much multiple times Friday night in an interview which aired on MLB Network. However, when Verducci provided him space to wander with his blame, gesture over here or over there, Hinch did not take it. Despite his unmistakable disdain for what was occurring -- he twice smashed the live-feed monitors with a bat -- his players soldiered on. They either didn’t understand Hinch’s point, or, more likely and more damning, didn’t care.
It’s surprising the use of a baseball bat to destroy an object can be classified as a half-measure, but that’s the case here. There was more Hinch could have done: hold a meeting, bench someone who used the sign, kick the person banging the garbage can out of the dugout, tell the general manager. He did not. This was his error. It’s since become his regret.
“I didn’t initiate or endorse it, but I was the manager,” Hinch said. “I think there was a responsibility when you’re in the position to end it.”
He’s right. But a bevy of other tentacles surround this stain. The players could have stopped after discovering an untoward advantage. They chose not to individually, they chose not to when their manager gave them a clear sign to do so, they chose not to the following year. For that, they are culpable. Their continued silence on the topic just further relates their arrogance about the situation. Unwritten rules can be inane and challenging. Here, the entire clubhouse knew they waded well beyond the accepted on-field sign-stealing process. Other teams knew. The Astros knew they knew. Yet, nothing. They didn’t care. They just kept going.
Meanwhile, former Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow continues to slink into the muck. Reporting by The Wall Street Journal on Friday made it clear Luhnow was aware enough of the “dark arts” that he should have asked more questions. Luhnow did one worse than Hinch: he never expressed a scolding finger. He either missed or ignored the signs, a great irony in this debacle.
Which brings us back to Hinch. There is personal value for him to be so blatantly apologetic. He wants to work in baseball again. Verducci mentioned this will be the first time in 24 years that Hinch, 45, will not be going to spring training. Asked if he wants to manage again, Hinch said he did, though noted that it will not be up to him. Measuring his pure motivation is challenging because it’s hard to shake the cynic’s view when assessing an admitted cheat.
While he’s home, unemployed and serving a one-year suspension, Hinch will watch baseball. He will spend time with his daughters. They were immediately on his mind the day he was suspended then quickly fired. Major League Baseball delivered its damning report and forceful reaction Jan. 13. Hinch was in Minute Maid Park. Owner Jim Crane called, asked him to come into Houston, then was told Hinch was already downstairs. Come up, Crane said. They talked. It was emotional. Hinch was dismissed. His next thought was to get his kids out of school before the news blazed across their phones. Crane went on to explain his decisions to the world less than an hour later.
There is no sympathy to be delivered here, nor is this done. The WSJ report could well lead to more firings. Questions in West Palm Beach will flood the Astros from the first day on. Luhnow could be done in baseball. Each time the Astros organization appears to have settled on bottom, a fresh shovel is pulled out. And, more broadly, it’s fair to wonder who is running baseball organizations. If the World Series winner appears to be circumventing the manager, who is really in charge across the league?
But, with Hinch, there is at least a dose of self-assigned culpability. He sat down in his house, answered the questions, did not waiver.
“My personality is to take the burden for everybody else,” Hinch said.
He tried to Friday. Now, everyone else can feel free to join in.
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